Zibby Owens: I'm excited to be here today with Jack Fairweather who is a former war reporter. He has covered Iraq, Afghanistan, and more. He is the author of A War of Choice and The Good War. His war coverage for the Daily Telegraph and The Washington Post earned him a British Press Award and an Overseas Press Club citation. His most recent book is The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz. He’s a graduate of Oxford University and currently lives in Vermont with his wife and three daughters.
Welcome to Jack.
Jack Fairweather: Hi, Zibby.
Zibby: Hi. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Jack: Thanks for having me.
Zibby: I'm particularly excited because this is definitely a long book and so interesting. I'm very excited to get the inside scoop from you before everyone delves into it themselves.
Jack: I'm thrilled to share.
Zibby: Although, I did realize that about a quarter of the book is footnotes at the end. It’s misleading how thick it is.
Jack: Yes, indeed. It’s a whole extra book inside.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what The Volunteer is about? What inspired you to write it?
Jack: The Volunteer is this extraordinary story about a Polish underground operative who, in 1940, took on a mission to infiltrate Auschwitz, raised a resistance cell inside the camp, and start reporting on Nazi crimes. Incredibly, he succeeded in doing those things, sending out messages to reach the allies that were the first to inform the world about what was happening in Auschwitz. Perhaps even more amazing is the fact that you haven't, dear listener, perhaps heard of his story before now because what happened at the end of the story, to cut forwards a little bit, is that he fought against the communist regime that was established after the second world war, was captured and executed, and all trace of his wartime heroics in Auschwitz obliterated by the communist regime. They did not want anyone to know about Pilecki’s story. This great resistance fighter could be an inspiration to people in Poland or beyond. It wasn’t until the fall of the iron curtain and in the 1990s that the archives were opened up. Finally, Pilecki’s story could start to be rediscovered in Poland and beyond. I was completely gobsmacked when I heard about Pilecki’s story. I hadn’t heard of it before. When I learned why, I felt a really strong sense that there had been a historical injustice and that we needed to know more about Pilecki, needed a Pilecki in our lives, especially at this time. That was inspiration for the research.
Zibby: How did you find out about him? You heard through a friend that you had been reporting with somewhere?
Jack: I'd been a war reporter in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was transitioning out of the Middle East. I was just beginning a family, in fact, when I met up with a fellow war reporter also mulling over life outside war zones. He had just been to Auschwitz and had come across the story of a camp resistance that was new to him. It was completely mind-blowing to me. When most people think about Auschwitz, they think about what the camp became, an idea of a place for the collection and mass murder of Europe’s Jews. They don't realize that there were these years in which the camp played a different role, slowly through a series of terrible experiments led to the final solution. I can't believe that there could be a resistance in Auschwitz. That got my antennas up. A year later in 2012, one of Pilecki’s reports was finally translated into English. I read that, utterly consumed my attention. He writes in this raw and incredible way. He also leaves lots of questions unanswered. What happened to the intelligence he was risking his life to smuggle out of the camp? That then led me into the research.
Zibby: Take me through how you did this research. You went from being literally on the front lines and being a victim of a suicide bombing attempt and in it -- you were on the ground. Where did you find all this? Are you now suddenly in libraries or online sitting at your desk? Paint the picture of how it went from you in the military garb to Google?
Jack: I made my first reporting trip to Poland in January 2016. The first person that I knew I had to see was Pilecki’s son. He had two kids before he went into the camp. Both are alive today. I knew I had to, on some level, seek their permission to write about their dad. I had found a couple of researchers, one of whom happened to live in the same block as the son, Andre Pilecki. As soon as she told me that, I told her, “You're hired.” They set me up with this meeting I was hugely nervous about. We'd spent a lot of pregaming and planning as to how it would go. As it turned out, it was completely unnecessary because Andre was so interested, engaged, and amazed that his dad’s story could attract outside interest. We bonded straight away. He warned me though, “I'm not sure what else you'll be able to find on my dad or where you should start looking.” I looked at him and said, “Andre, I'm going to start with you. Everything that you know about your dad is new in some ways. Any detail you give can me about what would motivate Pilecki to do such an incredible mission, I need.” That began the first of hours of conversations with Andre.
To give you a flavor of how incredibly engaged he was, he took us to the home outside Warsaw where he had sheltered with his mom and where Pilecki, after the war, would come and visit them. I wanted to follow in Pilecki’s footsteps as much as possible. That included things like recreating his escape from the camp. Andre, who's really one of the most lovely moments of the research, he followed us as we tried to follow the hundred miles of his escape routes. We were, my researchers and I, travelling at night, sleeping rough, as Pilecki was. Andre was not. He is in his late eighties. He would stay in hotels nearby and meet us with a cup of tea and ask us how the journey was going. One night, we all stayed together in this Benedictine monastery where Pilecki -- we actually slightly broke the rules of the research -- he slept in a pile of leaves nearby. In that monastery, he was given supper. The priest there gave him food and supplies. One of the lovely things about taking this approach was that as we followed his escape route, we know a couple of the towns where he stayed, but that's about it. We would meet families who had themselves sheltered Pilecki and the kids who’d be in the home when Pilecki and his two fellow escapers came and would show up. They remembered those scenes. There was this lovely mirroring in some ways that went on. We would walk up and they would take us in and give us tea and offer us a little bit of shelter.
The support and genuineness and passion to the history felt like an echo of what Pilecki himself experienced and actually writes briefly about as he travelled across Poland. Even though this was in 1943 at the height of the Nazi racial experiment in Poland when Nazis were trying to divide Poles between themselves, trying to exterminate the Jews, trying to round up people for forced labor, people were paid to rat on each other, even in that climate, Pilecki found this incredible spirit of warmth and generosity that allowed him to get to the safehouse and allowed him to write one of his reports about what was happening in the camp. That was a long answer to your question. First of all was meeting the family, Andre and Sophie, his sister. Then it was trying to retrace his footsteps and wherever possible, combining the two.
Incredibly, there were well over a dozen people who had known Pilecki or fought with Pilecki who were still alive when I began research in 2016. Most of them had not shared their stories before. It would’ve been a dangerous thing to do in the communist time. There's that reticence that we all know about our grandparents’ generation about talking about the exploits of the past. They opened up to me. They opened up when I took them to the places where they had been with Pilecki. On that first reporting trip, I went to the apartment where Pilecki began his mission. This was where, in September 1940, early on in the camp’s existence, he had sat waiting to be captured in a German roundup that he had been informed would be set to Auschwitz. The three-year-old boy who’d been in the apartment when he was captured, that three-year-old boy, now an eighty-six-year-old man who I brought back to that apartment, the first time he'd gone back in eighty years because the communists had taken it over at the end of the war and the rights of the family have been lost, we took him back.
These memories came back to him as we were in the room, one I loved so much because it really speaks to a special quality of Pilecki. As the Germans were barging up the stairs, they could hear gunshots and shouts. This is seconds before he was to be arrested. Pilecki noticed that the boy’s teddy bear had fallen on the floor. He reached up and handed it to him as the door was thrown open. That really spoke to me about Pilecki’s ability to reach out to others in moments of great stress. That became such a power of his in the camp time. Again, when you would think he would be thinking about his own survival and himself, he was doing the complete opposite. He was thinking about others.
Zibby: I was curious what you think made Pilecki the type of person who would do this. I guess you can be born the type of person to pick up a teddy bear. To volunteer to go into Auschwitz to try to get the message out to the whole world -- you paint him as a very average joe type of guy. He meets his wife painting scenery at the local stage. He's just this guy who runs this huge -- it sounds like a plantation -- but this giant thing that he inherits from his family. The next thing you know, he's joining this resistance and trying to save the world. I'm wondering as a parent myself, how do you think you instill values like this in your children? How do you think he got them?
Jack: That's a great question and one I've also thought about. In some ways, it was one of the ways in which I first started to approach Pilecki’s character. When you think about what he did, you reach for these great epithets and ideas like heroism and bravery and patriotism, which I always found a little bit distancing or hard to see the man. That's really what I wanted to get at. It was actually through Andre’s stories about Pilecki as a dad that I began to identify with him, not least because we were the same age when Pilecki began his mission to the camp as when I began my research. We had two kids, at least I did at the time.
I was listening to Andre talk about Pilecki’s parenting techniques. He was definitely in that school of hard knocks style of parenting. He would chuck Andre into the pond and say, “Get swimming.” He would put Andre onto a big horse and say, “Get riding.” His idea, in some ways, was for Andre to become a man, and perhaps a military man, a man who loved the ceremonial aspects of military life as he did. It turned out that Andre was totally not into those sort of things at all. He was into the radio. He was looking to the future. In fact, he went on to become an engineer and had absolutely no interest in pageantry, horse riding, all these things. Of course, that didn't stop Pilecki trying to engage with him on the subject matter.
This sweet and funny push and pull began that I totally recognize, of course, from raising my own daughters. You have to catch yourself every once in a while and say, “Hang on a minute. Am I pushing on them? What are they really getting out of this?” What I felt that came through from Andre’s stories, even though he was talking about them in a slightly negative way or critiquing his approach, was of course that Pilecki was so engaged with their childhood. That would be really different to many men of that era. His wife was a schoolteacher. He would ride the mile into the village and then pick them up. When Maria had to work late, he would take them home. They would be putting on fancy dress shows. They would be writing little poems that they'd perform when Maria came home. He was always engaged with them. It was quite eye-opening for me because it’s very easy to be not engaged. That was a real lesson for me in how to be a better parent. Albeit, sometimes you make some mistakes. They want you to think [audio cuts outs] should be teaching your kids. Still, that act of reaching out and engaging is really what counts. That's why to hear Andre and Sophie talk about their dad, it’s so moving to hear them.
Zibby: While you were doing all your research -- I feel like there has been a lot written and filmed about Auschwitz -- was there anything that you discovered, aside from this whole underground resistance movement, about what was going on at the camp that you really found surprising?
Jack: Let me add one final thing to answer your earlier question. That engagement that he had with his kids, that is really, in some ways, the secret of how he went about making the underground in Auschwitz against all the odds, against everyone’s expectations. It was this ability to engage with others. People who knew him who had been recruited by him described that they felt from him, this sense of trust. That was a very powerful force in the camp when everyone was being dehumanized and stripped of their dignity. It’s a powerful message for people today to realize just how important it is to trust people around you. That’s what Pilecki, in throwing Andre into the pond or popping on top of a horse, was doing. He was trusting them. In the camp, that's what he did. He would reach out to these broken and starving and demoralized prisoners and trust them with the secret of the underground, trust them with the secret of his own life. Of course, they could've turned around at any moment and shopped him to the local SS officer for a loaf of bread. Incredibly, none ever did because what he showed them through the act of trust was that something greater than themselves could endure in the camp.
To take that to your next question, that for me was so stunning, this place of victimhood, of suffering. That it could also be a place for inspiration, sharing, cooperation seemed so surprising to me. I confess that prior to coming across Pilecki’s story, I hadn’t read a great amount about Auschwitz or the Holocaust. I knew it, of course, as everyone does, but I struggled in a way to come to terms with what the camp was. How do you get your head around a million people dying there? Pilecki’s story was such a blaze of light through that dark time through the camp. He really drew me along with him throughout the research. That's what I would say to your listeners. He really is such a startling new perspective on Auschwitz. He shows that resistance is possible even in the darkest of times. For me, that was really inspiring. I hope that people can take away some encouragement in our own struggles to try and follow in Pilecki’s example.
Zibby: How did you go back and forth? This extends to your career as a war reporter as well. How do you toggle between the intensity of what you're covering and then your own life? How do you put those feelings aside? Let's say you’re on Pilecki’s journey to Auschwitz one day or you're recreating the whole thing. Then you have to flip a switch and go back to not Auschwitz-land. I'm not saying that very well. How do you do that? Do you even know how you that? You've always done that?
Jack: The truth is, I don't do it very well. As book writers, we understand that it’s a really engaging, incredible task, but you don't stop ever thinking through on some level, the material and the story. I have struggled. Especially for a story as consuming as Auschwitz and with someone as incredible as Pilecki, I really struggled to draw lines in my own life. I live, for the last two years, in Charlotte, Vermont. As I sometimes joke, I've been in 1940s Poland in actual fact. There was a little bit of a surprise this winter just as I sent off the first draft to suddenly look around me and get to take the kids skiing and see the joys of the Vermont landscape. Unfortunately, I'm not the person to turn to for advice for how to switch on and off. The best thing is through Pilecki’s example of engaging with his kids and allowing yourself to focus on them. That's my advice for them. I suspect my wife may have a different take on that. She's been such an amazing support.
I went back to Poland two weeks ago to give the talk I give about the book to the family and the friends and everyone who's supported the book. I took my two oldest daughters with me. It was a lovely coming together of my two parallel lives, as it were. To see Amalie get to meet Andre and shakes hands, and go around to his house for tea and cake, and to meet some of the uprisers who fought in the war uprising, for them to take my daughters around the streets where they fought and have them hear those stories, it was really lovely. Maybe during the book writing there's no solution, but at the end, make sure you bring the pieces together again.
Zibby: That's so nice. What would you like to see happen to Pilecki’s place in history? What would you like to see happen to his story? This must be a movie at some point, right? I can already see the whole thing. I can't wait to go see it. What would you like people to know that everyone now has to know about this man?
Jack: Pilecki is clearly, to my mind and I hope to everyone who reads the book, one of the great heroes of World War II. When you think about those heroes, people like Schindler and von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Hitler, his name should be a household name. He offers an extraordinary new slant on what heroism is in World War II. He fought against the Nazis from the very beginning with all of his passion, all of his soul, and made incredible sacrifices to do so. He managed to do something truly amazing in Auschwitz. He step by step identified the final solution as it emerged before him. He put names on unprecedented evil that no one had before.
Witnessing that act of naming something really important for us nowadays -- we are surrounded by atrocities and evil. How do we engage with them? How do we find ways to talk about these actions? Think about the migrant crisis, the terrible internment, separation of families down on the Mexican border. How do we talk about that in a way that engages with the past but recognizes that this is something new that we should all be getting up in arms about? There are Pileckis today out there who are trying to tell their stories, trying to raise awareness, trying to get us to engage. We need to learn from Pilecki both how he was this incredible witness, but also how we didn't listen to him at the time and how we neglected his legacy for all these decades. Let Pilecki be an emblem for us of what it takes to engage with the world around us, its darkest sides, and how you emerge from it with the courage and dignity intact and the very profound message that we need to reach out and share with others and get the world up in arms in the face of great evil.
Zibby: I love that. Are you working on another book now that this one is being launched into the world? Do you have another topic you're tackling right now?
Jack: That's a great question. Right now, we are opening an exhibition about Pilecki, me and a couple of Polish institutes, that will hopefully be a way to share some of the research that went into the book and share Pilecki’s story in a different way. I'm really excited about that. It’s opening in Berlin next month with Angela Merkel and a whole host of dignitaries. I hope it gets people to see and experience Pilecki’s story in a new way.
Zibby: Excellent. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors, people who might want to tackle something in history the way you did and really bring it to life in a vivid way, the way you did in your book?
Jack: I would say simply that it’s such a wonderful opportunity to engage with the past. I loved every minute of the research, plunging feetfirst into it and trying to experience as much as of it as I could. If you can find a story that gives you half an inkling, there may be more there. Whether it’s a family story, whether it’s a history book, go for it. I'm sorry that the research came to an end, which is a real testament to what a great experience it can be to engage with the past.
Zibby: Thank you for sharing your story and your passion for bringing this piece of history to light which will really benefit everybody. Thank you for being of service in all of your research as well.
Jack: Zibby, thank you for your great questions. A pleasure to speak.
Zibby: No problem, of course. Thanks for taking the time. Buh-bye.
Jack: Bye for now.